WASHINGTON — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday unanimously approved a radical new reactor design that Progress Energy proposes to use for construction of its $20 billion Levy County power plant. The decision is a milestone in the much-delayed revival of nuclear plant construction sought by the industry.
The commission took the unusual step of waiving the usual 30-day waiting period to approve the reactor design, the Westinghouse AP1000, so its decision will be effective in about a week. That moves the utilities closer to the point where they can start pouring concrete for safety-related parts of the plant.
In addition to bolstering Progress Energy's plans, the vote is a major step forward for utility companies in Georgia and the Carolinas, which also have billions of dollars riding on plans to build AP1000 reactors in the Southeast. Without NRC approval, the utilities could not get a license to build their plants.
Progress wants to build two reactors using the AP1000 — a 1,100-megawatt electric pressurized-water reactor — on a 3,000-acre site in Levy County about 8 miles north of the utility's Crystal River nuclear and coal energy complex.
Although Progress continues to move forward with the project, it has not made a final decision to build the plant. Progress' 1.6 million Florida customers have been paying in advance for the proposed plant since 2009.
Any final decision about whether Progress Energy will build the plant won't come until after the NRC completes its review of the utility's license application. The results of the review are expected in late 2012 or early 2013.
The AP1000 has a so-called advanced passive design that relies more heavily on forces such as gravity and natural heat convection and less on pumps, valves and operator actions than other reactors, in theory diminishing the probability of an accident.
For example, it is supposed to shut down safely if all electrical power is lost, which is what happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami in March.
Opponents of the reactor, among them the North Carolina group NC Warn, have argued that no new designs should be certified until the lessons of the Fukushima accident have been fully absorbed.
But the chairman of the commission, Gregory B. Jaczko, said that all of the panel's safety concerns had been addressed.
"The design provides enhanced safety margins through use of simplified, inherent, passive, or other innovative safety and security functions, and also has been assessed to ensure it could withstand damage from an aircraft impact without significant release of radioactive materials," he said in a statement.
Times staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this report.